Friday, May 16, 2008

Life After VON

These are three words I never expected to be stringing together, but for those of us with some VON history, it�s pretty clear now that we need to be thinking this way.

Several bloggers, myself included, have been commenting about the messy scenario that has sadly been unfolding around Pulvermedia over the past few weeks. I say �sadly� from a personal perspective, but also for anyone who has been touched by the VON experience and community over the past few years. It�s safe to say that includes just about everyone in my circle, and probably yours too.

I�m sad because VON was one of the few constants in my calendar that really mattered, and as we�ve all figured out by now, it was as much for the community as it was the vision we were looking to hear. I�m also sad because Jeff gave me a great opportunity to transition into independent consulting in 2005, and participating in the shows was one of the best ways for me to give back.

The �facts� and post mortems have come and gone, and I�m not going to go there. It�s pretty clear that the Pulvermedia folks are either not willing or able to comment, so aside from Carl Ford�s recent short but telling sign-off from last week, we really have little of substance to go on. So I�m not going to speculate on whether the show or the VON brand will survive, and what Jeff will do next. To keep things simple, though, I�ll steer you to Thomas Howe�s post from this week, which elegantly summarizes the sense of loss that I and many other have felt with VON�s demise. Not much for me to add, really, so I�ll leave that sentiment now, and move on.

The analyst in me has to ask �why� and try to understand where we go from here. Why did VON come undone? I don�t have the definitive answer, but it�s certainly a mix of a few things, including internal management, unfortunate timing, impatient investors, lack of internal vision/focus and changing market conditions.

Like many of you, I attend and participate in lots of industry events, and change is a constant. Show business is risky business, and it�s just as easy to make a ton of money as it is to lose a ton of money. Perhaps more importantly, all shows have a life cycle, and unless you stay ahead of the curve, it�s very tough to survive long term. VON had a fantastic 10 year run, and by any standard, they�re in the hall of fame � if there is such a thing for shows.

More importantly, they were there at the beginning for VoIP, and arguably, first mover advantage gave them a seat at the table for shaping the space, virtually ensuring that VON was a must-do event for anyone who was serious about this technology. Disruption and innovation were constants in the VON lexicon, and there was no better place to not only learn about it, but to create it and make it real. To me, that was the magic of VON, especially at a time when VoIP was dangerous, and you couldn�t be middle of the road about it. You either embraced it or feared it.

In the last few years, though, the market has evolved considerably, and VoIP is no longer a four letter word. It�s become so mainstream that the early disruptors and innovators like VocalTec, Net2Phone, Vonage, Primus or Voiceglo are either marginal players or historical footnotes. There�s nothing to fear anymore, and the name of the game is about doing business, not reinventing the world. In this environment, it became increasingly difficult for VON to remain leading or bleeding edge. VoIP had matured and was becoming much like any other communications technology.

Guy Kawasaki talks about jumping curves as a strategy for longevity. You have to recognize when the next innovation curve is coming and be prepared to bet the farm on that shift. Cisco likes to talk about market transitions, and they�ve done a great job catching some of these, such as video conferencing and video, and are reinventing their business around them. It seems to me that VON has not been able to do that. The recent shift to video was the right idea, but it�s a different market than VoIP, and perhaps more importantly, it�s a different community, and it doesn�t look like the VON experience translated that well into that space.

So, there seem to be just two scenarios here. Either you continue to serve a dwindling market with a scaled down event, or you jump the curve and move to the next transition. The former is tough to do, and is a bit like the incumbent telcos trying to squeeze every last dime out of their landline LD customers. Not much innovation or disruption happening there. For the latter, you first have to identify what the next curve is, and then figure out how to reach the community around it. And guess what � if you don�t, someone else will. Law of the jungle, I guess.

This brings me to eComm2008 - Emerging Communications Conference - and a theme I�m going to revisit over the next while. There�s a lot of ground to explore here, and as mentioned in one of my posts about this event, established shows like VON strike me as being a bit like the PSTN. Before going any further, I�m not trying to single out VON here. My thinking applies to any established show, and could be said equally for the likes of IT Expo or NXTcomm. I see a lot of PSTN in these events in that they are relatively large, relatively inflexible and relatively expensive to operate. These shows are difficult to reinvent, although VON has certainly tried with things like the Unconference.

The important thing for me is that these shows really aren�t the locus for disruption and innovation, so jumping to the next curve is going to be tough to do. This begs the question � what is the equivalent of VoIP today? There are lots of things out there to consider � video, social networking, mashups, mobility, Web services, etc. Tons of innovation and disruption happening here, but the community isn�t really going to these established events. So where are they going then? That�s a great question, and anyone attending eComm will tell you a lot of them were there. They�re going to other events too, no doubt, but given how eComm was created from next to nothing, this tells you that there�s still a hunger for this type of community. There are still lots of people out there who see not only evolution happening, but revolution, and they want to be part of it.

In short, the VoIP chapter has largely been written and the smart money has moved on � jumped curves in search of the next wave. I still think there are many of these waves, and have no doubt that events like eComm will thrive as they seek to address them. Why couldn�t VON do that? Well, I go back to my PSTN analogy and say they took things as far as they could, but the market has moved on, and has found other forums and communities for the next curves.

I�ll leave it at that for now, and welcome your comments. Lots more to talk about, and I�ll have another post along these lines soon.

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Posted by jonarnold at May 16, 2008 09:23 AM


In order to stimulate interest and thereby survive, scheduled events have to remain on 'the edge', pushing new ideas and concepts.

Sadly the commercialization of VON changed the focus away from the 'edgy' technologies to focus on those with the money to pay for floor space and airtime. This done, even the most skilled community builders like Jeff Pulver and Carl Ford could not maintain momentum.

VON has played a major part in my life - I met virtually all of my current circle of closest and most valued colleagues and associates at VON; concepts, plans and relationships born there have grown into real potentially world changing organizations.

So, what does the future hold? Well, the commercial entity that administered VON may have self-destructed, but the hard core of the community still lives on and is still out there, communicating and doing business. Events such as eComm, Cluecon, Astricon and others yet to be concieved will continue to act as rallying points for this community. Also, Jeff Pulver is still Jeff Pulver; one of his offspring may have demised, but the energy and capabilities of the source remain undiminished. I have faith that he will be back with something new and exciting that is not VON, but which will end up playing an essential role in getting like-minded peple together to build and maintain the community.

RIP VON - killed by people whose aim was to make money, not build community.

I look forward with great anticipation to the next phase in the continued evolution of stuff on 'the edge' and the community of people who innovate and challenge established concepts.

Posted by: James Body at May 17, 2008 02:19 AM

Hi Jon,

I have read all ur blogs since months, great work but little bit too long for us who are working in this branch. Fast and precious, it is great if they are reduced to 1/2 or 2/3.

The contents are super!

Posted by: Lebing at May 18, 2008 08:32 AM

I think the words "remain leading or bleeding edge" sums up your comments nicely. That, coupled with the fact that organizing a successful tradeshow year-in and year-out is a 24-month endeavor if you want to stay on top of industry changes, makes for a challenging undertaking. NXTcomm08 (and 09) is trying to all of the above.

Posted by: Neil Gaffney at May 19, 2008 03:26 PM

Does this mean there is no FallVON in Boston this year (2008)?

Posted by: Neil at May 26, 2008 10:52 PM

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